Tuesday is Soylent Green Day

In the liminal space between holidays, we prepare to say goodbye to another year of unreality. 2022 draws to a close with the world population exceeding 8 billion and our Overshoot Day falling on July 28th, the earliest ever recorded. With major weather events, political misdeeds, and acts of mad science dominating news headlines, our day-to-day lives feel like a dystopian fever dream. The Orwellian issues of censorship and surveillance already permeate modern culture and AI art generators have us all questioning what it means to be human. The subtle renderings of reality have blended into a pulpy sci-fi fantasy.

Director Richard Fleischer, with the help of screenwriter Stanley R. Greenburg, envisioned the year 2022 a little more extreme in the film Soylent Green than we may have experienced it. Yet grappling with widespread poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation…it feels awfully damn close. The novel the film was loosely based on, Make Room! Make Room! uncomfortably fits that mold too.  

So take a break from doom-scrolling your mass extinction memes and prepare for a gripping scenario of where current trends may be leading.

Make Room! Make Room!

The American illustrator turned sci-fi writer, Harry Harrison, is best known to the genre for the Stainless Steel Rat series. But it would be his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! that would delve into the consequences of overpopulation, exhausted resources, and corporate entities. Originally serialized in Impulse magazine, his novel inspired Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich’s bestselling nonfiction, The Population Bomb before becoming the basis for Soylent Green.

“This whole country is one big farm and one big appetite.”

Beginning in August of 1999, Make Room! Make Room! sees New York City at a population of 35 million. The United States is plagued with a collapsing water system, dust bowl, and food shortages. Over consumption of natural resources has left society in a housing crisis with many residing in run down cars. Requiring government assistance, citizens receive daily rations of food and water from guarded communal check points. Only the 1% get to enjoy simple pleasures, secured in fortified condos and penthouses. The narrative shifts among 3 people from various walks of life, struggling with the cards they’ve been dealt in the burned-out landscape.  

“The Welfare ration cards took care of everything, everything that kept you alive and just alive enough to hate it.”

When a food shop in the marketplace has a flash sale on “soylent” (soy and lentil) steaks, a small riot breaks out among consumers. In the thick of the melee, an 18-year-old named Billy Chung loots a box of the soylent steaks to help his family survive. Later landing a messenger job at Western Union, his first delivery sends him to an affluent apartment block. Secured to the teeth, the luxury condos are lush with air conditioning and running water for showers. Captivated by the opulent lifestyle and the live-in girlfriend, Billy decides to return later that night. But while breaking into the apartment of “Big Mike” O’Brien, he’s caught red handed and accidentally kills him. Police officer, Andy Rusch, is assigned to O’Brien’s murder case and quickly falls for the girlfriend, Shirl. The two begin a relationship during the investigation and with nowhere else to go, she moves in with Andy and his roommate, Sol. A water crisis begins to unfold within the city, reducing rations, prompting more protests and riots. Andy begins working doubles as crowd control at communal pumps as well as facing pressure to solve Big Mike’s murder by judges and political figures. Shirl soon becomes disappointed with how little time the overworked Andy has for her.

 Billy manages to evade authorities by taking up residence in a Navy scrapyard with a doomsday enthusiast. A former priest, Peter eagerly awaits the new millennium and the end of the world. After a few months, Billy believes it’s safe enough to visit his family but run afoul his pursuing detective. Cornered in his mother’s home, Andy accidentally kills the fugitive and the O’Brien case is closed. But by then the gangsters have lost interest in the murder and Andy’s superiors abjure his actions. Officer Rusch is then demoted about the same time that his girlfriend leaves him. Make Room! Make Room! concludes with Andy patrolling Times Square on New Year’s Eve, where he sees Shirl in passing among rich partygoers. As the clock strikes midnight, Andy encounters Peter, distraught over the aversion of Armageddon and time marching on.

“Can the world go on for another thousand years, like this? LIKE THIS?”

Soylent Green

In the early 70’s, MGM Studios purchased the film rights to the novel. Stanley R. Greenberg wrote the screenplay as a loose adaptation with Harrison as a consultant. Although the author was forbidden by contract to make changes in the script, he propagandized everyone on set during filming. Giving copies of the book to every actor and crew member.

With Richard Fleischer directing, Soylent Green was released in 1973. Starring veteran of dystopian action films, Charlton Heston, and Edward G. Robinson in his final film role. The ecological thriller imagines 2022 as a human-congested and polluted nightmare. Grainy aerial views of dense smog and burning ash from year-round heatwaves and mass extinction of flora and fauna. The severe depletion of natural resources has caused worldwide shortages of food, water, and housing. New York City’s population of 40 million keeps the poor in squalor. Hauling water from communal spigots and sustained by highly processed crackers provided by the Soylent Corporation. A food staple coming in flavors like red, yellow, and the most popular, green, which is manufactured from oceanic plankton.

Soylent Green follows Detective Thorn as he investigates the murder of William Simonson, a board member of the Soylent Corporation. During initial procedures, he loots Simonson’s apartment, bewitched by air conditioning and bars of soap. He even enjoys the services of the concubine who comes with the apartment. In one of the more memorable scenes, Thorn and his roommate Sol savor the food stuffs ransacked from the crime scene. A scraggly steak, an apple to the core, and a leaf of lettuce. This humbling meal was not originally in the script but ad-libbed by Heston and Robinson at the director’s request. An effective scene that sticks with you, of 2 friends enjoying real food. 

Detective Thorn’s investigation leads him to a priest that Simonson had visited shortly before his murder. The visibly exhausted priest struggles to tend his flock with paper-thin faith caused by Simonson’s revelations. Due to the sanctity of the confessional, the priest can only hint to Thorn what Simonson had told him. Under orders from Governor Santini, Thorn’s superiors insist he end the investigation. But this is a Charlton Heston film, naturally he refuses and dangerously treads closer to the truth. 

With books no longer published due to paper shortages, few could read outside of elderly archivists called “Books”. Thorn had swiped the title Soylent Oceanographic Survey Report 2015–2019 from Simonson’s apartment and gave it to Sol. Considered a “Book” himself, he takes the publication to a team at the Supreme Exchange. They conclude that the oceans are dying and can no longer produce the plankton from which Soylent Green is made. Confirming suspicions that Simonson’s murder was ordered by fellow Soylent board members to keep him silent. Disturbed by this knowledge, Sol decides to “return home” and seeks a euthanasia clinic (with the most immaculate customer service.) Thorn rushes to stop him but arrives too late and becomes aware of the awful truth. Moving to uncover proof of crimes against humanity, he is ambushed by Soylent operatives and finds refuge in the church where Simonson confessed. Wounded in battle, he urges his Lieutenant to spread the horrible truth while swallowed up by the despondent crowd.

“Soylent Green is made out of people. They’re making our food out of people. Next thing they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food. You’ve gotta tell them. You’ve gotta tell them!”

Art Predicting Life or Life Imitating Art?

While Harrison’s novel and Fleischer’s film differ greatly, themes from both cast dystopian shadows on the final week of 2022. Peter, the former priest in Make Room! Make Room! often droned on to Billy Chung about the end of the world. Believing that 1999 would bring on the Armageddon. By the end of the novel, he’s met with disappointment and anxiety as life carries on in the way it always had. Fears of a computer error apocalypse were rampant with the Y2K problem. While there were some isolated incidents of computer systems experiencing problems, these were largely minor and quickly resolved. Ultimately, the Y2K problem did not turn out to be as severe as many people had feared. Personally, being denied a grand ending to all things was a massive disappointment.

Soylent Green was one of the first mainstream films to bring climate change into public consciousness. Envisioning hazy cityscapes and grimy backdrops which aren’t that far out of the realm of possibility. Ever see a sunrise over the expressway on a still summer morning? In the film, Sol and the other “Books” at the Supreme Exchange uncover the truth about the oceans dying. In the real world, many calcifying life-forms, plankton, and other delicate ecosystems are in real danger from ocean acidification. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide are being absorbed by oceans and dissolving in the sea water as carbonic acid.Threatening the fundamental chemical balance of ocean and coastal waters from pole to pole.

In both novel and film, indoor plumbing was a thing of the past (unless you were rich). Andy Rusch often stands guard at communal water pumps while his roommate and girlfriend stand in line with jugs for their daily ration. Heston as Thorn, gapes in sweaty awe at a working bathroom sink. Even becoming emotional over the concept of a hot shower. Society has been watching one water crisis after another unfold over the last several years. 2022 saw Keystone, the “safest pipeline ever built”, have its third major spill in five years, contaminating waterways in Kansas. Jackson, Mississippi’s largest water treatment facility failed in August of this year, leaving 150,000 without drinking water. As of this month, about 45% of the United States are experiencing drought like conditions

In spite of all the spiraling chaos in the background of Make Room! Make Room! the media only provides round the clock coverage of an Emergency Bill that would legalize birth control. Mandatory information and options provided for free, in a too-late attempt to get a grasp on population control. The character Sol serves as a mouthpiece for the author to air some opinions, arguing with Shirl who refers to it as, “The Baby-Killer Bill”. Both parroting outdated talking points that were more controversial in 1966. Harrison’s novel had been published one year after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut, which set the foundation for Roe v. Wade in 1973. Sol decides to join a march in protest of the overturning of the Emergency Bill and is severely injured in a resulting riot. Political events from this past summer parallel this turn in the book a little too well. 

“We’re all winners in the ovarian derby, yet I never heard anyone crying about the sperm who were the losers in the race.”

Among the shiftless crowds standing in welfare lines in Soylent Green, many individuals (but definitely not all) are seen wearing hospital masks. A familiar sight in 2022 just about anywhere in the world. When Sol is injured in Make Room! Make Room! he’s denied proper care. Every hospital is overcapacity and there’s a shortage of antibiotics due to a flu epidemic. In our reality, Europe and North America are about to ring in the New Year with amoxicillin and other medication shortages. Meanwhile, hospitals in the United States are the fullest they’ve been since the pandemic began in 2020.

In Make Room! Make Room! a brown granular food supplement called Ener-G is rationed out to the public. The latest wonder of science that is processed from bricks of dried plankton. In Soylent Green, the titular corporation sold nutritional wafers in various color flavors like popsicles or Gatorade. I’m personally reminded of the Super Donuts from public school cafeterias. Made with vitamin fortified Nutri-Dough, they were slathered in frosting by lunch ladies to make them palatable.   

“The world is experiencing a food revolution and the (FDA) is committed to supporting innovation in the food supply.”

FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf

Driven by concerns of agricultural impact on the environment, in recent years, there has been a significant rise in the popularity of food alternatives. Plant-based companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have exploded across casual dining menus with a variety of products. Just this past November, the FDA approved of Upside Foods’ lab grown meat for human consumption. There’s also Soylent, a crowdfunded tech company selling meal replacements. The company name was specifically inspired by Harrison’s novel and the website even has a cute animation about how Soylent is plants—NOT PEOPLE! Though they released a limited-offer Soylent Green Bar online, describing the flavor as “unique and mysterious for the complex taste of humanity.” I tried a chocolate-mint drink, and its flavor profile was exactly what you expect; a pukey sweet chalk-shake.

Similar Flavors

For fans of science fiction food chains and dystopian diet fads, Agustina Bazterrica’s novel, Tender is the Flesh, portrays a society in which a virus has contaminated all animal meat and cannibalism is now legal. Marcos, a human meat supplier, is conflicted by this new society, and tortured by his own personal losses. In the Oddworld gaming series, the player’s character goes on a quest to defend the alien ecosystem from endangerment by industrial corporations. Specifically in the game, Abe’s Oddysee, the planet’s terrestrial race of Mudikons, is enslaved and processed into food products at Rupture Farms. Image Comics’ Chew, ran from 2009-16 following Tony Chu, an FDA detective with a unique palate. Set in a world where all poultry is outlawed following a bird flu pandemic, Chu and others like him investigate food related crimes. Breaking up egg cults, chicken speakeasies, and government conspiracies of space produce.

That’s the Way the Human Wafer Crumbles

Make Room! Make Room! and Soylent Green present the audience with a grim portrait of the inevitable, at the rate we’re going. The consequences of over mining natural resources and ruling corporate entities will catch up with us eventually. On the inside cover of his novel, Harry Harrison dedicates his book to his two children.

“For your sakes…I hope this proves to be a work of fiction.”

Further Reading 

Dr. Bloodmoney or: The Post-Apocalyptic Novel To Begin Your New Year With

Dr. Bloodmoney or: The Post-Apocalyptic Novel to Begin Your New Year With

Hailed as “The Godfather of Science Fiction”, Phillip Kindred Dick was born prematurely on December 16th, 1928. His twin sister, Jane Charlotte, would die 6 weeks later and leave a profound impact on Philip’s life. Suffering from hallucinations and a slippery grip on reality, he would also be forever haunted by the absence of a sibling. The concept of a “phantom twin” and estranged siblings would surface throughout his critically acclaimed writing career. Most notable being Dr. Bloodmoney or: How We Learned to Get Along After the Bomb. In a letter written to Sandra Miesel in 1970, Dick admitted that he liked this novel more than anything else he had ever written.

The Bomb Will Bring Us Together

Composed on the heels of the Cuban missile crisis, Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney imagines the early 80’s in California’s Bay Area as an age of fear. A paranoia of atomic weapons and fallout after a failed nuclear defense experiment. The Bluthgeld Disaster of ’72, so named after the overseeing physicist that had made a miscalculation. Resulting in mass destruction and radiation poisoning. In his signature style of a disjointed narrative, Dick’s novel begins by introducing multiple characters on the last known day of civilized society. 

Beginning with Mr. Jack Tree, the assumed name of Dr. Bruno Bluthgeld. The infamous radiation expert that had made the grave error. Having gone into hiding after the catastrophe, he now suffered from severe paranoia. Guilt and isolation eroding his mind to fabricate delusions of grandeur. Believing he can speak with God and that others read his thoughts. At the suggestion of his friend, Bonnie Keller, he seeks psychiatric help from Dr. Stockstill. Unfortunately, Stockstill disgusted with the incognito scientist, knowing who he really is. Trying to mask his hatred of the patient, he distracts himself by thinking about the NASA Mars launch. 

The lone friend of Bruno Bluthgeld is a bored housewife, Bonny Keller. Depressed and repressed, she fears stagnation. Burning through hobbies and meddling in the lives of others to stay busy. With little regard for her husband, Bonny is quite fond of Bruno. Having served as a mentor, she hopes her psychiatrist can help with his mental state. Anxiously she waits by the phone to hear about Bluthgeld and Stockstill’s session. Fantasizing about having affairs or China declaring war. To ease the restlessness, Bonny watches the Mars launch live on television.

Hoppy Harrington suffers from phocomelia, born without arms and legs. He gets around on a government issued cart with extensors. But Hoppy has a powerful mind and is full of ambition. Determined to make a living doing manual labor, he’s hired as a repairman at Modern TV. Quickly he wins over his coworkers with his talents. Concentrating on a broken electronic, he almost seems to heal the device rather than repair it. 

Emergency Day 

Since the radiation fallout from 1972, mankind has been seeking to thrive beyond Earth. Russia had failed to colonize the moon and the cosmonauts either starved or suffocated. NASA had decided to send a couple into orbit in hopes of colonizing Mars. Walter Dangerfield was selected, an earnest-hearted Regular Joe with his wry and mordant wit. He and his wife Lydia were being sent to pioneer a “Nova Terra”, armed with good breeding genes and a wealth of knowledge. The Dangerfields are a beacon of hope for Earthlings suffering the long-term effects of the Bluthgeld Disaster. Making the opportunity of a fresh beginning more available to everyone tuning in. Until all the screens suddenly go blank, and the signal is lost.

“Walter, we are under attack down here.”

Static begins erasing voices from mission control to the Regular Joe. Helplessly looking down at the blue marble to see matches being lit. Little puffs and flares burning up life. 

The only warnings that came were a split-second Red Alert on FM radio. Moments passed before skies darkened and filled with soot. The very ground would jump again and again. Bombs rained upon cities and countryside alike from unknown enemies. People ran wild in the streets, seeking shelter in community cellars. Buildings crumbled and all of Berkley seemed to be sinking on one side, tilting sidewalks, and toppling structures. The survivors would one day reminisce about the event lacking hostility and purpose. As if it was another mistake made in Washington. Militant amateurs and the greedy in their highly scientific circles. Just like in ‘72, when the deranged are in charge it makes the concept of “enemy” unbelievable. Other survivors will recall the relief and excitement felt when the bombs started dropping. If not seen as a second chance to do things over, it was regarded as the will of God. Cleansing away all the undesirable traits of mankind. 

The city had become a sieve, leaking endless streams of people wanting to get out. Bruno Bluthgeld wandered the demolished streets of Berkeley, in the midst of chaos. Unable to understand what was happening, just like everyone else. Cars and crowds pushed past him as he slowly recognized this as the end. Surmising that there is no war to speak of other than inside of himself, the responsible party. Bluthgeld believes he brought about this ending with his mind alone. Possessing psychic abilities that cause destruction, just as he had done in ‘72 with the experiment failure. Desperate to make amends, Bluthgeld attempts to will civilization to heal itself from this tragedy. 

Crawl Out From the Fallout 

When the bombs cease and the smoke clears, society slowly reestablishes itself in smaller colonies. Connecting with a barter system of skills and resources. Slowly they rebuild with primitive methods and little to no machinery. Outside of Berkeley, in West Marin, there are communal gatherings to listen to a lone working radio and the last broadcasts of mankind. Walter Dangerfield, trapped in the Dutchman IV space capsule for the last 7 years, has become an international disc jockey. Endlessly orbiting Earth, entertaining anyone that can pick up his signal. Transmissions of book readings and songs from his music archive. Equipped with the resources to sustain a decade of life for 2, he currently feels unwell. Noticing a sudden appearance of chest pains. Cheerfully, he asks his audience for advice and wonders how much time he has left, as do his listeners. Unable to imagine going on without Dangerfield. 

Hoppy Harrington defied all odds and survived Emergency Day. Settling in West Marin, he serves as the capable handy-man and entertains with imitations and juggling. Always seeming to know more than he lets on, Hoppy makes people uncomfortable. Yet the residents were grateful to have him part of the community for his talents. Mechanically inclined and strengthened mental abilities, Hoppy can now move objects with his thoughts. Using these assets to protect residents from thieving outsiders. Psychically lashing out at anyone who underestimates him. Hoppy’s funny impressions can become cruel mocking if his telekinetic gifts aren’t respected. 

Bonny Keller defeated stagnation after Emergency Day with her beauty alone. Rising to an unofficial position of power by influence and her many secret affairs. This dangerous hold over her peers has led to the execution of anyone who displeases her. In a spontaneous comfort tryst with a traveling salesman after the bombs fell, Bonny conceived a child. Now 7 years old is the dark eyed little girl named Edie. Unbeknownst to all is her parasitic twin that she calls “Bill”. When she speaks to her brother, it is written off as merely an imaginary friend. But Bill has special abilities too, being stuck between worlds. He speaks with the dead and wants to try and swap consciousness with another creature. 

Mr. Jack Tree, formerly known as Bruno Bluthgeld, lives on the outskirts of West Marin as a sheep herder. Twisted with age and more mentally unstable than ever before, protected by Bonny Keller. Once suspecting his cover has been blown, he decides to eradicate all of humanity for good using only his mind. Envisioning black skies and bright flashes in the distance with the smell of smoke on the wind. Hoppy Harrington decides to intervene with his own mental abilities and psychically disposes of the physicist. Indebting West Marin and the rest of the Bay Area to him for sparing all another Emergency Day. But the resident’s gratitude isn’t enough for the telekinetic handy. He wants to be admired like Walt Dangerfield and uses his mind to slowly replace him. Only the little Bill Keller inside of his sister’s abdomen is willing to take on Hoppy Harrington and stop him from hurting people anymore. 

Postmodern Pandemic 

Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney is considered to be one of the defining science fiction novels of the ‘60s. Originally under the working titles “In Earth’s Diurnal Course” and “A Terran Odyssey”, editor Donald Wollheim suggested something different. A reference to the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Published by Ace Books in 1965, it was nominated for a Nebula Award for ‘best novel’ but lost to Frank Herbert’s Dune

Reading Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney in the beginning of 2022, is remarkably chilling. Offering ideas of how people come together or move further apart after a major disaster. He blurs the lines of time by referencing actual government officials, like Richard Nixon. Other times he gives only vague descriptions that allude to other political figures. While the book is a product of its times, it’s uncomfortable in moments that highlight the unnecessary divisions of humanity. Many of which are still rampant, 57 years later. Dick noted the desperation of neglected veterans, mental capacities of leaders, and long-term effects of chemical testing. Even giving an uncanny projection of the Challenger tragedy with a simple line of alternate history. 

The arrangement of characters and their struggle for a basic understanding echoes current uncertainties of the future. From the horrible realization that everything will change. To the feelings of hopelessness in the face of domestic error and miscalculated response. All putting the reader in an uneasy state of familiarity, as we enter a 3rd year after Covid’s debut. Once considered tropes of science fiction and horror are now staples of our modern-day reality. It wouldn’t feel too far-fetched if the next challenges our society faces align with other themes in Philip K. Dick’s existential treatises. Such as government conspiracies, evil corporations, or the entity formerly known as God appearing as A.I. or a cosmic structure. The futures he contributed to the sci-fi genre beg us to never stop questioning reality and what does it mean to be human? The answers to which are forever evolving in what feels like the beginning of the end.